the fish in the fish store window

A writer was invited to teach a religion-and-literature course at a prestigious divinity school, but found himself rather in trouble with his students. One of the works he assigned was King Lear, and some students found it rife with “sexist language.” Another was Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and had he noticed that all of the characters were men? A third text was Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and its intrinsic racism should have been obvious.

The school was Harvard Divinity School, the professor was Frederick Buechner, and the year was 1982. He describes the experience in his memoir Telling Secrets. It all happened thirty-seven years ago, if you weren’t counting: sometimes today’s kerfuffles were also the kerfuffles of yesteryear, which more of us would know if we had some temporal bandwidth. That could help us to get some context, and a grip.

You might take Buechner’s side on all this, or you might take his students’, but in either case the really interesting thing, to me, is how much more confident those students were about their political commitments than about anything that could even half-plausibly be described as “religious belief.” Thus this memorable passage:

Harvard Divinity school was proud, and justly so, of what it called its pluralism – feminists, humanists, theists, liberation theologians, all pursuing truth together – but the price that pluralism can cost was dramatized one day in a way I have never forgotten. I had been speaking as candidly and personally as I knew how about my own faith and how I have tried over the years to express it in language. At the same time I had been trying to get the class to respond in kind. For the most part none of them were responding at all but just sitting there taking it in without saying a word. Finally I had to tell them what I thought. I said they reminded me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in a fish store window with their round blank eyes. There I was, making a fool of myself spilling out to them the secrets of my heart, and there they were, not telling me what they believed about anything beneath the level of their various causes.

And then one of his students, an African, said: “The reason I do not say anything about what I believe, is that I’m afraid it will be shot down.” But no one was afraid that their political commitments would be shot down. Perhaps — and perhaps for that reason — there wasn’t anything “beneath the level of their various causes.”

I’ll leave you with Buechner’s reflection on this exchange: “At least for a moment we all saw, I think, that the danger of pluralism is that it becomes factionalism, and that if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost.”